In the past three months, 53 people in nine states have been infected in an E. coli outbreak that struck Chipotle restaurants across the country. Investors in the company are suing Chipotle for failing to disclose that its quality controls were insufficient. Shares in Chipotle are down 35%. 43 restaurants were closed in the Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR, areas. Today, company leadership announced that they will be closing every Chipotle restaurant nationwide for a food safety meeting on February 8th. And Chipotle still isn’t sure which ingredient is the culprit.
But overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that our national love affair with this QSR is far from over. Just ask this young married couple, who recently celebrated their four-year anniversary at the same Chipotle where they dined on their wedding day. Why are consumers still so devoted to an eatery that might poison them?
Through effective branding, Chipotle created lifelong connections with their consumers that weather even the queasiest of threats. Their brand champions quality ingredients from humane sources, and this value is demonstrated through brand applications that spotlight their sourcing process. They call it “Food With Integrity.”
That kind of transparent value system lives in every extension of the Chipotle brand – from their short story cups and bags that feature authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and George Saunders to their maudlin ad tracing food’s journey from farm to table. It’s this kind of deliberately accessible highbrow, this hand-drawn/urban aesthetic, this vapid pageant of authenticity that lures a nation of consumers into thinking that, when they buy a burrito, they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. That they’re making a choice. And that their choice indicates a higher purpose.
And that’s what makes this incident so heartbreaking for those who got Chipotle-inspired tattoos. Because some would argue that the foundation the brand was built upon is bankrupt. It’s like falling in love with someone, and finding out ten years into a healthy marriage that he was actually a spy who infiltrated your hometown to assassinate you and your friends.
A strong brand like Chipotle is not defined by its name, logo, or slogan. It’s defined by what it stands for in the minds of its consumers and competition. When you think of your company, what is the main value it stands for? For Disney, it’s family. For Apple, it’s intuitive design. And so on. For Chipotle, it’s food with integrity.
“Brand ≠ Name/Logo/Slogan
Brand = Stand For”
What you stand for is shaped by your actions and characterized by a consistent style. The way you look and the way you speak. The more consistent and comprehensive the style, the stronger your brand. Everything you touch – from advertisements to t-shirts to websites to the way you answer the phone – is informed by this style.
Chipotle’s verbal style is frank and sincere, underlined with a no-nonsense kind of humor. Their visual style combines modern rustic with doodles. Picture their corrugated metal / Mayan-inspired wood carvings. Picture their hand-drawn, script-covered bags. Because Chipotle writes on all their surfaces (packaging, signage, even gift cards), their personal voice is everywhere. In a way, they’ve conflated the visual and verbal. The visual is verbal, and vice versa. It’s homemade, yet polished. It’s very effective.
“Brands aren't just one-way.”
Your consumer interprets these actions, and that informs their perception of you. That perception is your brand. It’s a dialogue between consumer and company – it’s human. Chipotle and companies like it who have embraced this approach forged firm bonds with their consumers that carry them through crises. Just look at Apple’s shady labor practices.
If Chipotle were a person, he would be the guy who in high school was popular simply because he was a good guy. He got along well with every everyone – from the preppy kids who dressed like their parents already to the gutter punks who chain-smoked Newport Lights in the bathroom and never flushed their butts down the toilet. At first, you think that he’s stupid because no one could be that affable without lower cerebral activity. But he carries around a Dave Eggers book one day, and the next makes a thoughtful comment in your Citizenship class about the symbolic power the Supreme Court holds in mainstream American morality. This surprises you.
Chipotle would be John Krasinski.
When done right, your brand will absolutely determine the course of your business. Far from belying weakness, a robust rebrand based on sound values will invigorate every single thing you do. It will be your lifeline.
In Chipotle’s case, this dust-up will be spun as just that – a roadblock on the way to changing the world. The foundation is not bankrupt; in fact, it is because of their core value that Chipotle ran into quality controls issues in the first place. Because of their alternative sourcing, they experienced unpredictable problems. They handled these problems with characteristic transparency and sincerity, and their product is the better for it.
This crisis is merely an opportunity to solidify America’s relationship with their favorite burrito spot.